An operating system’s core task is to give you fast and easy access to your programs and files. Although it’s not something you’d switch operating systems for. And Windows offers plenty of ways to quickly launch your apps and folders.
Let’s Start With Start
Windows has been flip-flopping on the Start menu. It was around in Windows 7, it went away in Windows 8, we got a pseudo-Start button in Windows 8.1, but finally Windows 10 has an all-new Start menu.
The Start Screen on Windows 8 onwards also lists all your programs when you press Ctrl+Tab. While useful, it’s not the best way to access your apps, especially those meant for desktop mode.
Pro tip: If you’re on Windows 7, you can pin a folder to the Start Menu by dragging and dropping it.
If you’re on Windows 8 or Windows 8.1, you can choose from several tools that mimic the classic Start menu, as well as some that add new features to it.
My favorite is Start Menu Reviver 2, which is a great way to get the Windows 10 look in Windows 7 or 8. It’s quite customizable and works well with touchscreens. Plus, if you’re sharing a computer and one of you doesn’t like the new look, you can revert to the Windows 7 design with a click.
Windows Libraries and Favorites
The folder system encourages you to sort your files, but that’s only useful if it helps you find stuff faster. Since Windows 7, Microsoft has lent a hand to organize your folders with Libraries.
A library is essentially a “host folder” serving as an access point for other folders strewn across different drives and locations. It’s one of the oft-overlooked features built into Windows, but it can be incredibly useful if you know how to set it up. Take the time to know your libraries and customize them, it’s helpful in the long term.
Similarly, you can pin your most visited folders to Windows Explorer’s Favorites section. Again, not many people use this, but it’s one of the best ways to bookmark your favorite folders in Windows.
If you’re on Windows 10, know that Favorites has now been replaced with Quick Access, which also automatically populates a list of frequently visited or recently opened folders and files. However, if you want, you can disable those from Quick Access.
Search and Launch Files and Folders
Windows has a built-in Search feature which improved with each version. It’s part of the Start menu, whether through the Start button in Windows 7 or the Start Screen in Windows 8 onwards. The easy way? Tap the Windows Key on your keyboard and just start typing.
If you’re on Windows 7, we would recommend ditching the built-in search and using Everything, one of the fastest tools for Windows desktop search. It indexes all your files and folders, and then brings them up in a jiffy when you start typing in the program.
In Windows 8, either the Windows or the shortcut Win+Q will bring up the Modern Search menu. You can choose to search everything, or search your files, or even search the Web directly. Justin has a great guide on how to search better and faster with Windows 8, which also applies to Windows 8.1 and Windows 10.
While there are modern apps like Search.Files Express, we wouldn’t recommend any of them. Use either Everything for desktop search or the built-in Windows Search, as third-party modern apps just don’t do a good job.
The Good Old Taskbar and Jump Lists
From Windows 7 onwards, Microsoft debuted its new Taskbar, which is one of its coolest features ever. It acts as a dock for shortcuts to applications, you can pin your favorite programs here (right-click their icon, choose Pin to taskbar), and even quickly access your files and folders through Jump Lists.
Pro tip: Middle-click the taskbar icon of a program that’s already running to launch a separate instance of it. It’s one of many cool taskbar tricks you should know.
A jump list is what you get when you right-click any application in your Taskbar. If the program supports Jump Lists, the pane will display recently opened items and the option to Pin items.
By default, Windows Explorer sits in your dock and you can pin several folders to it. Either click the pin icon next to any frequently opened folder, or drag-and-drop a folder to the Taskbar for it to be automatically pinned. So the next time you need to launch a folder, right-click on the Explorer icon and you’ll see it in Pinned items.
The Best Alternative Dock: RocketDock
Although we prefer the original Taskbar, especially because of how developers support features like jump lists and thumbnail previews, there is one worthy contender: RocketDock.
RocketDock is giving Windows users a taste of what their friends on Mac OS X have been enjoying. It sports many default Taskbar features, including thumbnail previews, but RocketDock is far more customizable. Plus, it’s available as a no-install portable app to make your life easier.
Where it really shines is with the Stacks docklet, a tool to access files and programs within folders, without opening Explorer. Aaron has written a fantastic guide on how to set up RocketDock with Stacks for an organized desktop. The end result is worth it!
The Best Launchers for Windows
Unfortunately, Windows keyboard shortcuts, despite being great for productivity, don’t have a quick way to launch any folders and programs with the keyboard alone. Fortunately, apps close that gap.
Launchy: Launchy is arguably the most popular launcher for Windows. This keyboard driven launcher app hasn’t changed much since our last review. The best part is the array of Launchy plugins to supercharge your experience. It takes some getting used to, but once you do, it’ll become your go-to tool for everything.
MadAppLauncher: While Launchy is more powerful, you need to learn its many commands. MadAppLauncher opens apps in a simpler and more creative way. In the console you will see your keyboard layout with different apps and folders mapped to the keys (which you can customize). Press the key to launch that program or folder. It couldn’t be easier.
Enso Launcher: Enso Launcher is probably the fastest launcher because of its base premise. Hold down the Caps Lock key, type your command (like “Open Chrome”), and release Caps Lock to execute that command.
It can also be programmed to learn commands, as Jimmy wrote in our original Enso Launcher review: “Also, the command ‘learn as open’ allows you to click on and highlight any file, folder, or web address and give it a nickname. Typing ‘learn as open makeuseof’ with ‘http://www.MakeUseOf.com’ highlighted in your address bar will teach it to open Make Use Of whenever you say ‘open makeuseof’.”
FARR: Windows power users swear by FARR (Find And Run Robot). In fact, we know several users who “upgrade” from Launchy to FARR for its powerful features. In many ways, it is similar to Launchy. However, it indexes your folders by priority for quicker searches, has numbered search results for quick selection, and can be specified to treat certain extensions as “more relevant” than others.
Executor: Found something you can’t do in any of the other launchers? Chances are, Executor can do it. It’s the most powerful Windows launcher around, letting you do anything you can think of: shutting down your PC, setting a reminder, opening recent documents, and much more. If you’re a 64-bit Windows user, grab the latest test build, not the stable version.
A Mouse-Friendly Launcher
Most launchers are all about quick keyboard access. But if you’re a mouse user, then there is one brilliant mouse-friendly launcher: Circle Dock.
Circle Dock made it to our list of the best multifunctional docks with more features and rightly so. Once you set up a custom hotkey (I recommend Ctrl+Middle click), it’ll show up wherever your mouse cursor is. Circle Dock puts your programs and folders in concentric circles around your cursor. You can customize just about everything, from the shortcuts and transparency to the size and rotation speed.
The original developer of Circle Dock stopped updating it a while ago at v0.9, but someone else has taken up the mantle. We recommend that you download v1.5.6 from Softpedia.
An iOS-Like Touchscreen Launcher
Whether you’ve got a Windows 8 touchscreen laptop or a tablet, it’s the apps that make it all worth it. Unfortunately, the default Windows desktop makes it difficult to access your apps and folders with an easy tap, unlike iOS or Android. But help is at hand with WinLaunch!
WinLaunch is basically mimicking OS X’s Launcher, but it turns out to be more useful for a touchscreen finger-based experience. The setup is pretty easy, but we would recommend you dive into the settings and activate a hotcorner or a gesture-based hotkey for it, so that it’s easy to start in touchscreen mode.
Once you have that set up, just add your programs, files, and folders to WinLaunch and they will appear much like how apps look on iOS or in Android’s app drawer. You can swipe left and right for multiple pages, too.
Share Your Tricks!
While we have featured several different ways to launch software and open folders quickly in Windows, we are sure you know of tricks, tips, and programs we missed out on. Time to share in the comments section, folks!
Image credits: ra2studio via Shutterstock.com